The First Trip to Coney Island
Sam Liptzin—also known as Feter Shepsl (Uncle Sam) and Kvikzilber (Quicksilver)—was a self-proclaimed “radical humorist.” Born in Lipsk, Belarus, in 1893, Liptzin moved to the United States in 1909, quickly becoming active in leftist politics as an organizer, speaker, and writer. For much of his career, he wrote a regular column in the Morgen Freiheit—the Yiddish Communist journal. Writing through the 1970s, Liptzin published twenty-eight volumes of short stories, poems, and aphorisms.
Liptzin’s writings dealt humorously with the everyday lives of his Yiddish-speaking Communist neighbors, occasionally employing a serious tone to discuss the political issues of his time. In the later decades of his career, Liptzin’s writings featured reflections on his childhood and early years in America. His second volume of works was translated into English as Tales of a Tailor (1965): a series of prose portraits of New York City’s garment industry in the 1910s and ’20s. His 1963 Yiddish language collection Mit a freylikhn ponim (With a Happy Face) is divided into several sections, the first recounting stories of his childhood in Lipsk and his first days in America. “The First Trip to Coney Island” comes from this collection. The main character, Shepsl, is Liptzin himself—though it’s unclear whether the story is strictly autobiographical. This story offers a telling glimpse of the experience of first encountering the customs, styles, sights, sounds, and smells of New York City—specifically Coney Island—in the first years of the 20th century. Throughout, we see how the “greenhorn” Shepsl negotiates this new and overwhelming environment. —Zeke Levine
As soon as the greenhorn outfitted himself in a new American suit—with a crease down the pants—and managed to buy a watch with a gold chain from a peddler, his cousins took him out to see New York: theaters, concerts, parks, and even a trip to the zoo. They also decided to show him the famous amusement park, Coney Island.
Lovely Esther, one of the family, took one look at him and scoffed, “When Shepsl buys a new straw hat and throws away his boyish ones, then I’ll bring him out to a dance.” Shepsl answered, annoyed, “If my hat is the most important thing, maybe she should buy a hat and take it out dancing.” But he thought it over for a while. And when another cousin told him that Saturday they would take him to Coney Island, he went out and purchased a nice new straw hat.
Saturday morning, Shepsl dressed in his new gray suit and put his watch with the gold chain, as a watch was worn back then, in a jacket pocket, with the ring of the chain pinned to a lapel. He combed his hair and put on, for the first time, his nice straw hat.
Eight of the family—cousins and friends—went with “Shepsl the Greenhorn” to Coney Island. They traveled by streetcar, for a nickel, shlepping themselves two or three hours. On the way, the Americanized members of the family told Shepsl all about the wonderful and magical things they would see. “There’s Luna Park,” said one cousin. “Do you know what happens there? I don’t need to tell you; you’ll see for yourself soon enough.” Another cousin chimed in, “Nu, and what about Steeplechase? When we get on, you won’t know if you’re in the air or on the ground.” And Esther threw in her two cents: “There’s nothing wrong with just walking around, hearing the excited screaming, seeing the ‘little people,’ seeing the girl who’s half human and half fish, or winding through a dark tunnel in a little boat, where you might get a kiss,” she laughed.
The longer they traveled, the more packed the streetcar got. Kids were hanging from the poles near the open windows. People stood one on top of the other. The bag of bathing suits dangled from one shoulder. The food they’d brought along got crushed and started to smell. The streetcar smelled of roasted chicken, the odor of chopped liver filled the air, and the stuffed cabbage that someone brought along in a glass jar stung everyone’s noses once the jar was smashed under somebody’s foot. Suddenly all the passengers caught the same scent: the foul smell of swampy water, and every face shone with happiness. All together, everyone started screaming. “Coney Island! Coney Island!”
A swarming ball of people pushed at the exits, trying to get themselves and their bags out—all the while looking for their group. Finally, Shepsl the Greenhorn found his family. First, he glanced down at his watch: “How long was that ride?” But as he looked at his lapel, he could see that someone had torn his jacket— a pickpocket had cut the buttonhole —and the watch was gone, after such a short time. The family tried to console Shepsl, assuring him he could have the jacket repaired, and he could always buy another watch from the peddler, since it was insured.
Shepsl the Greenhorn was, at that moment, very disappointed with his first trip to Coney Island. But then they arrived at the bustling Surf Avenue, and he heard the screams and saw people buzzing around him, buying “ayz-krem,” sugar wool (“kottn-kendi”), fresh popcorn, and hot dogs. Shepsl cast his eyes on all the wonders: the freaks, the half-naked dancers, the “six-hundred-pound girl” (as they introduced her), and the “sixty-five-pound Lilliputian,” her husband. The family got closer to Steeplechase, where a large inflated rubber lady greeted the crowd with hysterical laughter. Out front a man was sitting in a wire birdcage, selling tickets: a combination pass to twelve attractions for fifty cents. Shepsl the Greenhorn cast his eyes on the other amazing sights: the swings, the horses, the ships, the Loop the Loop, and “The Stormy Glider,”* where you walked up five flights of steps then sped down from the top and got thrown about in circles.
The cousins, who remembered Shepsl’s nickname in heder—“Shepsl the Daredevil”—wanted to see if the greenhorn was scared or not. They made their way over to the Glider and climbed the steps—with Shepsl the Greenhorn right behind. They all sat at the edge, and when somebody yelled “One, two, three!” they let themselves go.
The ride tossed them this way and that, but in the middle a stormy wind lifted the new straw hat off Shepsl’s head. The hat went tumbling down. Yes, the straw hat arrived first . . . And when they made their way to the bottom at full speed, their feet hit the new straw hat, which was ripped to shreds. Only the black band remained, hanging from one of the cousin’s shoes—as if the shoe were mourning the loss of the watch with the golden chain and the nice new straw hat.
Esther wanted to distract the greenhorn from all of the “pleasures” he’d experienced his first time in Coney Island. She invited him, even without a hat, to ride with her in the Tunnel of Love, where a little boat sailed through the darkness surrounded by brilliant panoramas. Playfully, they jumped into the boats, which followed one after the other and entered the tunnel.
Shepsl, who was very bashful, sat in the boat and waited for a suitable moment, or a word from Esther, for some encouragement to put his arm around her and give her a kiss. But before he could turn around to look, he once again saw the light, and the boat stopped. The three minutes were up . . . As they exited the ride a rubber doll popped its head through a window and pointed at the passengers with its long nose. Shepsl felt—and maybe Esther did too—that the long nose was aiming right at them.
Now when Shepsl goes to Coney Island he recalls his first time there fifty years ago. He longs for his lost watch, for his lost hat, and for his lost kiss. But more than anything, he longs for the past fifty years! . . .
*The attraction Liptzin is describing is most likely a ride like the Switchback Railway or any number of early roller coasters where passengers climb steps and descend rapidly down.
Zeke Levine is a doctoral student in historical musicology at New York University, where his research focuses on Yiddish language songs of mid-20th-century America. An alumnus of the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program and the Yiddish Book Center Fellowship, Zeke is also a 2019 Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center; he is translating a book-length collection of Sam Liptzin’s writings.